Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Jen Malia's :Connor and Taekwondo Tournament + Book Review by Kathy Halsey

Book Review by Kathy Halsey

I first met author Jen Malia this past November at NCTE 2023 in a group of SCBWI Northern Ohio and Central-South Ohio friends. We were Facetiming with former SCBWI NO Illustrator Coordinator Merrill Rainey. Authors were spilling out of their chairs, onto the floor, happy to meet new authors and share experiences. 

Later I “met” her again as a member of the Soaring ‘20s Debut group that has stayed together since their debut for marketing purposes. (genius idea IMO). The GROG blog has reviewed debut group books before in our 10-year blog journey. I was thrilled to get an ARC of Jen’s newest book to review book 3 in her chapter book series The Infinity Rainbow Club.

 Even though Connor and the Taekwondo Tournament is the third book in the series,  it stands on its own even if a reader hasn’t read the other two books. From the beginning I was hooked by the main character Connor vs. his archenemy, Wyatt. They face off sparring in Master Park’s Taekwondo dojang, gradually get to know each other at school and finally support each other as friends. 

The Taekwondo scenes throughout the book are filled with authentic, action-packed scenes that will engage readers as well as teach them more about the art and practice of this Korean martial art form. Backmatter with Junior Belt ranks and Korean terms are a great addition to this book featuring a boy with ADHD and other neurodivergent characters who we get to know in the classroom, at home, and in their Taekwondo practice, teams, and tournaments. 

The themes of perseverance, focus, struggling through tough situations apply specifically to each character’s brain difference, but also apply universally to readers who don’t face these challenges. Peter Francis’s black and white illustrations detail the moves, stances, and forms of Taekwondo making this chapter book even more inviting.

As a former K-12 school librarian, I see this series as filling a need for more chapter books with neurodiverse characters going through typical chapter book experiences. Jen has also piqued my interest in Taekwondo, too.

(P.S. Don't forget to day is Day 7 of our 10 Year Anniversary Party. Check out today's prize & Rafflecopter here:)

Interview with Jen Malia

Kathy: Tell us a little about yourself. 

Jen: I’m the autistic author of the children’s chapter book/lower middle grade series, The Infinity Rainbow Club, and the picture book, Too Sticky! Sensory Issues with Autism. I live in Virginia Beach with my husband and three kids. I love running, taekwondo, hiking, and outdoor adventures. I’ve traveled to 20 countries around the world and many places in America.

For four years, I lived and worked in the United Arab Emirates as an assistant professor of writing at the American University of Sharjah. I currently work as a professor of English and the creative writing coordinator at Norfolk State University. I have a PhD in English from the University of Southern California, and I’m currently working on my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Kathy: What inspired you to write Connor and the Taekwondo Tournament?

Jen: As an autistic mom of three neurodivergent children, I write the books I didn’t know I needed, but wish I had, as an undiagnosed autistic girl, and the books I want my neurodivergent kids and other kids like them to have now. I was diagnosed with ASD in my late thirties, and I’m self-diagnosed with ADHD and OCD.

My family of five, including my husband and three kids, has different combinations of ASD, ADHD, OCD, dyslexia, and dysgraphia. In The Infinity Rainbow Club series, I draw on my own and my kids’ experiences with neurodivergence. Each book is told from a different point of view and centers the voices of neurodivergent kids.

Jen, family, Connor (book3) and Taekwondo!

Kathy: How did you get the idea for this next book in the INFINITY RAINBOW CLUB series?

Jen: For Connor and the Taekwondo Tournament, I knew that I wanted to focus the internal plot on Connor, a fourth-grade boy with ADHD, who has to work on his focus at the taekwondo dojang, in school, and at home. I also wanted to develop the external plot around Connor’s goal of earning his taekwondo junior black belt and competing in a taekwondo tournament.

In this chapter book, I draw on my own and my kids’ experiences with ADHD and taekwondo. A lot of the scenes with Connor in the dojang are based on my experiences testing for my taekwondo black belt and sparring in tournaments.

Kathy: How long did it take to write this story?

Jen: I wrote three books for the Infinity Rainbow Club series in a little over a year. I had about four months between contract deadlines, and each book turned out to be around 18,000 words. While I was drafting Connor and the Taekwondo Tournament, I was completing copy edits for the first book in the series, Nick and the Brick Builder Challenge, and developmental edits for the second book, Violet and the Jurassic Land Exhibit. It was the ultimate test of multitasking book projects!


Kathy: How long did it take to sell this story? 

Jen: Connor and the Taekwondo Tournament was part of a 3-book deal. My agent sold the series on proposal to the same editor that I worked with for my debut picture book, Too Sticky! Sensory Issues with Autism.

Kathy: What do you hope readers take away from reading this book?

Jen: I hope that neurodivergent kids see themselves in this book and that their neurotypical peers understand better what it’s like to have a different brain. Connor and the Taekwondo Tournament is not so much a book about ADHD as a book about a boy who happens to have ADHD going about his everyday life at home, in the taekwondo dojang, and at school.

I hope kids will be inspired by Connor’s story of perseverance. In his words, “to not give up even when it’s hard to keep going.” I want to encourage more kids to participate in sports like Connor too. Some parents have already told me that their kids signed up for taekwondo or other martial arts after reading Connor and the Taekwondo Tournament.

Kathy:What do you like most about Peter Francis’ illustrations? What surprised you about the illustrations?

Jen: I love the level of detail in Peter’s illustrations. The characters really come to life on the page. I got to see every stage of how the illustrations for the book developed and to provide feedback along the way.

For Connor and the Taekwondo Tournament, Peter and I went back and forth via my editor to get the forms, stances, kicks, punches, board breaks, and sparring moves right. I was surprised with how much I fell in love with the illustrations for this series. I can’t picture the stories being illustrated any other way.

Peter Francis, illustrator

Kathy: What advice do you have for writers interested in chapter books?


Jen: Chapter books are a tough sell because they are almost always part of a series, which means a publisher has to commit to buying multiple books from an author. To stand out, aspiring authors need a unique concept that can be explored across multiple books.


Using the concept for my series as an example, I created a club-based series, which is clear from the title, the Infinity Rainbow Club. The infinity rainbow is the symbol for neurodivergence. In this series, I wanted to center kids with different brains—the roughly 1 in 5 kids who are neurodivergent. I emphasized in my series proposal that hardly any chapter books have neurodivergent protagonists despite the large number of kids with diagnoses like ASD, ADHD, OCD, dyslexia, and dysgraphia to show the need for more books like mine in the market.


Kathy: What’s next for you?


Jen:I’m currently working on a middle grade horror novel and some picture books.

Kathy: Anything else you’d like to tell us?

Jen: You can learn more about me, my books, essays, and speaking on my website at

Biography: Jen Malia is a professor of English and the creative writing coordinator at Norfolk State University. Originally from Pittsburgh, Jen currently lives in Virginia Beach with her husband and three kids. Jen has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, New York Magazine, Woman's Day, Glamour, Self, and others. Jen is the author of Too Sticky! Sensory Issues with Autism as well as the Infinity Rainbow Club series. Jen was diagnosed with ASD in her late thirties and has three neurodivergent kids with different combinations of ASD, ADHD, OCD, dyslexia, and dysgraphia.

Contact Information for Jen Malia 


Twitter: @JenMaliaBooks

Instagram: @jenmaliabooks

Facebook: @MomWithAutism


  1. Nice book review & interview, Kathy & Jen! As I already told Jen, my two kids got their black belts in taekwondo growing up in Korea.

  2. Thanks for the support and commenting, Tina.

  3. Great interview! Congratulations, Jen! I know kids will love this series.

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